Test anxiety takes many different forms. Part of dealing with test anxiety is understanding why it happens and identifying its symptoms. Whatever the reason for test anxiety, you should know that it is common among college students.

Test anxiety has many causes. It can be the result of the pressure that students put on themselves to succeed. Some stress connected with taking exams is natural and can motivate you to perform better. However, when students put too much pressure on themselves or set unrealistic goals, the result can be stress that is no longer motivating.

The expectations of parents, a spouse or partner, friends, and other people who are close to you can also create test anxiety. Some students, for example, are the first in their families to attend college and thus feel extra pressure that can be overwhelming.

Finally, some test anxiety is caused by lack of preparation. Knowing that you are not prepared, that you have fallen behind on assigned reading, homework, or other academic commitments, is usually the source of anxiety. It is logical to be anxious when you know you aren’t prepared. This situation becomes even more difficult if the units of the course are cumulativethat is, if they build on one another, as in math and foreign languages, or if the final exam requires understanding all the course material.

Some test anxiety comes from a negative past experience. Forgetting past failures can be a challenge; however, the past is not the present. If you carefully follow the strategies in this chapter, you are likely to do well on future tests. Remember that a little anxiety is OK, but if you find that anxiety is negatively affecting your performance on tests and exams, be sure to ask for help from your college counseling center. Such centers and their professional counselors have a great deal of experience dealing with test anxiety because it is common in college students. Don’t think you are a weirdo because you are test anxious.

Take the following test anxiety quiz to find out more about how you feel before taking tests.



Do you experience feelings of test anxiety? Read each of the following questions. If your answer to a question is “yes,” place a check mark in the box. If your answer is “no,” leave the box blank.


  • image Do you have trouble focusing and find that your mind easily wanders while studying the material or during the test itself?

  • image During the test, does every noise bother yousounds from outside the classroom or sounds from other people?

  • image Do you often “blank out” when you see the test?

  • image Do you remember answers to questions only after the test is over?


  • image Do you get the feeling of butterflies, nausea, or pain in your stomach?

  • image Do you develop headaches before or during the test?

  • image Do you feel like your heart is racing, that you have trouble breathing, or that your pulse is irregular?

  • image Do you have difficulty sitting still, are you tense, or are you unable to get comfortable?


  • image Are you more sensitive and more likely to lose patience with a roommate or friend before the test?

  • image Do you feel pressure to succeed from either yourself or from your family or friends?

  • image Do you toss and turn the night before the test?

  • image Do you fear the worstthat you will fail the class or flunk out of college because of the test?

Personal Habits

  • image Do you often stay up late studying the night before a test?

  • image Do you have a personal history of failure for taking certain types of tests (essay, math)?

  • image Do you drink more than your usual amount of caffeine or forget to eat breakfast before a test?

  • image Do you drink alcohol the night before to calm your jittery nerves?

  • image Do you avoid studying until right before a test, choosing to do other activities that are less important because you don’t want to think about it?

How many items did you check? To get your test anxiety reflection score, count your total, and then see what level of test anxiety you experience.

13–16 Severe: You may want to see if your college counseling center offers individual sessions to provide strategies for dealing with test anxiety. You have already paid for this service through your student fees, so if you have this level of anxiety, take advantage of help that is available for you.

9–12 Moderate: You may want to see if your counseling center will be offering a seminar on anxiety-prevention strategies. Such seminars are usually offered around midterms or just before final exams. Take the opportunity to do something valuable for yourself!

5–8 Mild: Be aware of what situationscertain types of classes or particular test formatsmight cause anxiety and disrupt your academic success. If you discover a weakness, address it now before it is too late.

1–4 Slight: Almost everyone has some form of anxiety before tests, and it actually can be beneficial! In small doses, stress can improve your performance, so consider yourself lucky.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety


Test anxiety can appear in many ways. Some students feel it on the very first day of class. Other students begin showing symptoms of test anxiety when it’s time to start studying for a test. Others do not get nervous until the night before the test or the morning of an exam day. And some students experience symptoms only while they are actually taking a test.

Symptoms of test anxiety can include:

Test anxiety can block the success of any college student, no matter how intelligent, motivated, and prepared that student is. Therefore, it is important to seek help from your college’s counseling service or another professional if you think that you have severe test anxiety. If you are not sure where to go for help, ask your adviser or instructor, but seek help promptly! If your symptoms are so severe that you become physically ill, you should also consult your physician or your campus health center.

Types of Test Anxiety

Students who experience test anxiety don’t necessarily feel it in all testing situations. For example, you might do fine on classroom tests but feel anxious during standardized examinations such as a college placement test. One reason such standardized tests can create anxiety is that they can change your future. One way of dealing with this type of test anxiety is to ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Remember that no matter what the result, it is not the end of the world. How you do on standardized tests might limit some of your options, but going into these tests with a negative attitude will certainly not improve your chances.

Test anxiety can often be subject-specific. For example, some students have math test anxiety. It is important to understand the differences between anxiety that arises from the subject itself and general test anxiety. Perhaps subject-specific test anxiety relates to old beliefs about yourself, such as “I’m no good at math” or “I can’t write well.” Now is the time to try some positive self-talk and realize that by preparing well, you can be successful even in your hardest courses. If the problem continues, talk to a counselor to learn about strategies that can help you deal with such fears.

Strategies for Dealing with Test Anxiety


In addition to studying, eating right, and getting plenty of sleep, you can try a number of simple strategies for overcoming the physical and emotional impact of test anxiety:

Getting the Test Back

Students react differently when they receive their test grades and papers. Some students dread seeing their tests returned with a grade; other students look forward to it. Either way, unless you look at your answers (the correct and incorrect ones) and the instructor’s comments, you will have no way to evaluate your own knowledge and test-taking strengths. If you want to ask any questions about your grade, this is an excellent reason to visit your instructor during his or her office hours or before or after class; your concern will show the instructor that you want to succeed.



What do you do when an instructor returns an exam to you? Do you just look at the grade, or do you review the items you answered correctly and incorrectly? Review your graded tests because doing so will help you do better next time. You might find that your mistakes were the result of not following directions, being careless with words or numbers, or even thinking too hard about a multiple-choice question. Mistakes can help you learn, so refer to your textbook and notes to better understand the source and reason for each mistake. If you are a member of a study group, plan a test review with other group members; this allows you to learn from your mistakes as well as those of the others in the group.